Confronting the FAO to Stop GMOs

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Confronting the FAO to Stop GMOs


"It’s unacceptable that a supposedly neutral inter-governmental body like FAO would allow itself to be turned into a billboard for Big Biotech,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group. (photo by Flickr user lizdinovella)

Between 28 February and 3 March  2010, the
Network for the Defence of Maize, the National Assembly of
Environmentally Affected People and Vía Campesina-North America held an
independent public hearing in Guadalajara, Mexico. The objective was
to bring together the evidence and to elaborate the arguments for
starting proceedings in international courts of justice against the
Mexican government for deliberately permitting the introduction into
the country of genetically modified maize. Mexico is where maize
originated, thousands of years ago, and where today more than 1,500
native varieties grow, evolve, and are bred. The cultivation of these
varieties is governed by a complex interaction of not only social
relations, profound knowledge and trust, but also community resistance.

Ten years ago, Mexico's government began to distribute large
quantities of GM maize seeds in the countryside, in an illegal,
undercover operation, and native maize in different regions began to be
contaminated. In response, indigenous and peasant communities from
many regions formed the Network for the Defence of Maize (Red en
Defensa del Maíz
). They exchanged local knowledge and experience,
and decided to ban the introduction of GM maize in their regions. The
network was a space where they could share views, and they became more
convinced than ever that the best way of protecting maize was by
growing it. For these communities, agriculture is not a commercial
activity but a way of caring for the planet through continuous work.
Growing their own food is not only a way of understanding the complex
relations between winds, water, forests, other crops, animals and soils
but also of protecting human life and promoting justice. Only then can
communities be sure that the diversity of maize will not be lost and
that the natural and social fabric of relations that lie behind maize
will not be weakened.

The decision to hold a first public hearing to make an international
case against the Mexican government and the major corporations
involved in GM agriculture and food stemmed from the perception that the
Mexican judicial system is completely closed or corrupt, or both. Over
the last decade the Mexican government has approved a set of reforms
and laws to privatise, register, certify or ban what were once commons -
water, forests, seeds, biodiversity. It has encouraged intellectual
property rights through patents and other legal devices and supported
the introduction of GM crops. These laws have created a huge new space
for the big corporations to manoeuvre at large but restricted yet
further the already limited legal space available to common people. The
three most damaging measures have been: the land counter-reform that
permits the privatisation of public or communal land; the approval of
NAFTA, which provides the big corporations with a totally different set
of rules with which to advance their interests; and the refusal to
acknowledge indigenous rights in the Constitution.

It is no coincidence that, just a few months after the Mexican
government had made it legally possible to grow GM maize experimentally
in field trials (which, in practice, ended the moratorium that had been
in effect since 1998), the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) decided to come to Mexico to hold a "technical
meeting" to promote biotechnologies as a solution to hunger in the
world. At the very least, the decision showed a crass lack of
sensitivity to the deep struggle being waged in Mexico over the issue.

Indigenous communities went further: they saw it as little short of a
provocation from both parties. FAO was openly backing the Mexican
authorities in their efforts to release GM crops, while Mexico's
decision to host the meeting was a way of publicly acknowledging its
support for FAO's biotechnology approach. So to hold a public hearing
to enquire into these events was also meant as a counter-attack upon
the FAO for holding a meeting that was geared to promoting GMOs and to
advancing the interests of the corporations.

The FAO's involvement with biotechnology is blatant, as these three
quotations from its official preparatory documents show:

"Agricultural biotechnologies provide opportunities to address the
significant challenges of ensuring food security without destroying
the environmental resource base. [Executive summary]

More emphasis and activity have been focused on developing
policies and regulations related to preventing risks arising from GMO
than to facilitating the use of agricultural biotechnologies for the
benefit of poor rural producers. [p. 9, 2.7, 42]

Over-emphasis of and polarization within the "GMO debate" has
distracted and diverted scientific and policy resources from focusing
on the needs of poor rural producers. The controversy regarding GMOs in
food and agriculture over the past decade has had significant effects
in stalling, reducing and redirecting some public sector research
efforts in agricultural biotechnologies ..." [p. 9, 2.7, 43]1

In a context so biased in favour of corporations, Pat Mooney,
executive director of ETC Group, a veteran civil society member of the
FAO's steering committee and a known activist against GMOs from the
beginning, decided to resign publicly in protest:

"The overwhelming thrust of the guiding documents for the meeting
are hopelessly biased in favour of biotechnology and skewed to persuade
developing countries that they have no option but to climb on the
biotech bandwagon. It's unacceptable that a supposedly neutral
inter-governmental body like FAO would allow itself to be turned into a
billboard for Big Biotech,"

Mooney said.2
The ETC Group press release goes on to point out:

"The choice of Mexico as a venue for the biotech conference is
also controversial. The Mexican government has recently broken a
10-year moratorium on the planting of GM maize. Answering a letter
against these GM maize trials, sent by 1,500 organisations from 67
countries, the FAO secretariat said that it was a ‘national matter' for
Mexico, not for FAO."3

The resistance is joined

Many different people from communities, organisations, research
centres and civil society groups from Mexico and abroad, all linked to
one of the three main organisers, participated in the public hearing and
helped to develop a judicial strategy for building a case to present
internationally. The sessions heard a different range of voices from
those heard at the FAO's meeting. People presented a general diagnosis
of GMOs, gave examples of the lies told to promote them and put forward
strategies for building a judicial case to present internationally.
All participants agreed that GMOs interfered with the processes of
breeding and natural selection, with unknown consequences. In their
early stages, GMOs allowed the corporations to act as controllers of who
could and could not grow food, with what methods and with whose seeds.
More recently, however, GMOs have been used increasingly to jeopardise
natural and social processes, as companies are making GMOs that are,
in fact, small factories for manufacturing fuels, toxins, hormones,
drugs and other dangerous substances.  

It was clear that, while GM contamination has affected native crops
quickly and extensively in many countries, the GM offensive has
encountered widespread peasant and indigenous resistance in Mexico.
Although the government and the corporations have tried to pollute the
whole country with clandestine GM seeds, this resistance has prevented
contamination on a massive scale. The government has tried to enforce a
huge battery of laws, regulations, certifications and registrations to
criminalise the time-honoured behaviour of indigenous and peasant
communities, but these communities' resistance is based on a
determination that cannot be easily broken: it relies upon the daily
local practice of traditional knowledge to prevent contamination, to
continue exchanging ancient native seeds, and to plant native maize and
all its associated crops, season after season. This is the statement
of a comunero, Eutimio Díaz, of the Wixárika people:

"We are not going to allow a few scientists and politicians (who
know nothing about our relations with the land, with maize) to impose
on us their "worsened" maize. Maize wants and requires special
attention. Far from saying we will give up our maize, we need to find
ways of looking after her better.4 We have lost a
lot in our history - dances, music, festivities, clothing, knowledge.
So with our maize we need to be more careful. If we lose her, our
community will end. With maize, we can share. So we have spoken: we are
not going to accept transgenic maize. If Mexico loses its seeds, the
consequences in other areas may be even worse. So we are not going to
give up our seeds. Ever. From our assemblies we have spoken: we are not
going to respect any law that is set against our peoples, we are not
going to allow alien maize to come in. We are not going to accept any
law that affects our maize. What they want to impose on us brings with
it a great deal of harm."5

The testimonies and evidence brought together at the hearing
constitute a strong legal case for arraigning the Mexican government in
an international court of justice for abuse of power. But for the
communities the case is important for another reason too: it helps them
to increase their understanding and strengthen their organising. After
all, the future is not written.

Going further

The complete coverage of the public hearing, "Los
transgénicos nos roban el futuro", can be downloaded, in Spanish, from ttp://

"In Defense of Maize (and the Future)", Americas
Program, August 2004,

Diario Oficial de la Federación, 6 March 2009; La
, 10 March 2009; "México da luz verde a maíz transgénico", La
, 15 October 2009.

Ana de Ita and Pilar López Sierra: "La cultura maicera
mexicana frente al libre comercio", in Maíz, sustento y culturas en
América Latina. Los impactos destructivos de la globalización
REDES-AT Uruguay, Biodiversidad-sustento y culturas, Montevideo, 2004,
p. 28.

FAO International Technical Conference, Document
ABDC10/9: Agricultural Biotechnologies for Food Security and
Sustainable Development: Options for Developing Countries and Priorities
for Action by the International Community
, January 2010,

ETC Group, "FAO's Biotech Meeting Dubbed ‘Biased for
Business' as Steering Committee Member Resigns in Protest", 26 February

GRAIN, "Las mentiras de los transgénicos", March 2010.

GRAIN, "Fighting contamination around the world", Seedling,
January 2009,

1 FAO International Technical
Conference, "Agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries:
Options and opportunities in crops, forestry, livestock, fisheries and
agro-industry to face the challenges of food security and climate
change" (ABDC-10), Guadalajara, Mexico, 1-4 March 2010, document
ABDC10/9 [Issues-Recommendations]: Agricultural Biotechnologies for
Food Security and Sustainable Development: Options for developing
Countries and Priorities for Action by the International Community,
January 2010,

2 ETC Group, "FAO's Biotech Meeting Dubbed ‘Biased for Business' as
Steering Committee Member Resigns", 26 February 2010,

3 Ibid.

4 For the Wixárika, maize is a young girl.

5 Presentation by Eutimio Díaz Bautista at the public hearing, titled
"Los Transgénicos nos Roban el Futuro" ("GM Crops Steal Our Future"), 2
March 2010. See
(in Spanish).


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